BY ANDREA CASH
When St. Thomas More Catholic Parish of Chapel Hill became certified by Orange County Living Wage in July, there was much rejoicing, as a long-term goal had been reached. Behind the scenes, the process had been underway for more than five years.
The effort began with advocacy from the outreach committee of about 16 people, which is centered around the idea of treating others fairly. The committee works on initiatives like blood drives, weekly food drives, collecting and donating clothing and household items for community members in need, and the CROP Hunger Walk.
Susan Romaine, a founder at OCLW, is also a parishioner at St. Thomas More. She presented to the committee about OCLW’s mission years ago. Outreach committee member Carol Prokop was particularly moved. “It didn’t occur to me that some people at the church may not be getting paid living wages,” she says. “It’s an issue that is very important to me. And now and then, I would check back with the parish leaders to see how things were going – and then report back to the committee.”
“It’s just the way the work of the church happens and the way we function,” says Carlos Lima, St. Thomas More’s director of operations and finance. “People bring in concerns and initiatives, and we respond in the best way we can.”
Walking the Walk
Prokop says becoming living wage certified sets an example as followers of Christ.
“As a church, we need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” she says. “If we are telling people that we need to be compassionate and empathetic and support fairness and justice … we must support people’s basic rights. People need a fair wage for their work in order to get those basic rights met.”
Lima says the parish could have been certified a couple of years ago, except the wages of some part-time workers weren’t where they needed to be. OCLW’S living wage for 2022 is $15.85 per hour, or $14.35 per hour if the employer pays at least half the cost of health insurance. The church’s leaders took a strategic approach to ensure that they could support this goal in the long term. But they informed parishioners – about 2,800 families representing about 8,000 individuals – that this was something they were working toward.
“Even before we started the offertory appeal, we let folks know that this is a goal we have. We shared that we weren’t there yet and explained why,” says the Rev. Scott E. McCue.
In October 2021, living wages were announced as a key component of the parish’s annual increased offertory appeal; parishioners are annually asked to think strategically about their financial gifts to the parish. In short, leaders made the case that as the cost of living increases, so, too, must wages. Would parishioners help fund the wage increase?
McCue recalls that parishioners immediately understood that “the reason we are able to be successful in our mission – to Pray, Serve, and Spread the Gospel with Joy – is because we have the employees we have who do the work that they do.”
Parishioners met the moment by increasing their financial gifts between the fall of 2021 and July 1, 2022, making it possible for wages to be lifted and the living wage goal to be met. The parish has 28 employees. On average, wages were increased by $2 per hour – signifying an annual wage increase of $126,760. The parish’s work force falls into four main categories: pastoral staff (including two priests, a deacon, and a lay minister)); faith development staff focusing on the education of adults, children and youth; administrative staff, including an office manager and support staff; and the maintenance department. On average, staffers have been with the parish for eight years.
“I think the staff was very much appreciative that we were looking at this in a very intentional way to make sure that we were keeping up with the cost of living and being mindful of the needs that they have and the responsibilities they have,” McCue says. “The fact that we took on the initiative to be certified I think says something given our presence in and impact on the community. … For us as faith leaders, we speak often about that need to look out for those who are most in need in our midst. … Part of this has to be to make sure we are looking out for those who are entrusted in our care.”
Lima says the certification is an example of putting “your resources where your message is, where your heart is.”
“It’s important that people know that this is faith-based initiative,” says Pastoral Associate Mary Ellen McGuire. “This all stems from Jesus Christ, who was a model of justice for us – and fairness and compassion. That’s what drove this.”
‘The Right Thing to Do’
McGuire adds that she is hopeful that parishioners who either own businesses or have the ability to influence their workplace will spread the word about OCLW, leading to more wage increases in the county.
“People feel it’s important and feel gratified that the money they put in the coffers is going toward this,” she says. “People work hard, and the staff is extremely grateful. There is rejoicing, and the sentiment is that it’s the right thing to do.”
All photography – with the exception of the collage of staff photos at the end of the article – by Tom Simon.